Abraham Lincoln said, “Stories are the shortest distance between a stranger and a friend.” Lincoln understood the power of a story. It was a tool that allowed him to quickly and dramatically connect with people.
I will share the techniques Lincoln used to tell a story in my presentation on Wednesday (Feb. 4) at 3:30 p.m. at the Arizona Senior Academy.
Based on my newest book, “How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds, and Funny Bones,” I will illustrate Lincoln’s methods of mimicry, self-effacing humor, and adding a moral or surprise twist to a story.
1) To replace depression with an anecdote
Friends of Lincoln commented that he was able to snap himself out of a seemingly deep depression by telling a funny story.
“If Lincoln was oppressed, the feeling was soon relieved by the narration of a story. The tavern loungers enjoyed it, and his melancholy, taking to itself wings, seemed to fly away.”
2) As safety-valve to relieve stress
Do you think that your life is stressful because you have a raving boss and a dysfunctional family life, while at the same time trying to find enough money to make ends meet?
Consider for a moment how stressful Lincoln’s life was. He was President during an unpopular war that he seemed to be losing; the majority of his Cabinet members thought that he was an ignoramus and they all could do a better job as President; and, a hysterical wife made his home life seem like A Nightmare on Elm Street. If Lincoln had been under any more pressure he would have turned into a diamond.
Given the situation that he found himself, it’s only natural that he needed some way to blow off steam and relieve the pressure. He did that though storytelling.
It was common for Lincoln to liven up a Cabinet meeting by telling a story or by reading some humorous quotes from his favorite authors Artemus Ward and Robert Newell (both genial newspaper critics who supported Lincoln’s policies.) When nit-picky Cabinet members failed to appreciate the humor as he did, Lincoln reproached them by saying,
“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh occasionally I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
3) To avoid making a commitment
It seemed that nearly everyone (in addition to the aforementioned salted mixed-nuts in the President’s Cabinet) thought they could run the county better than Lincoln, and they were not shy about coming to the White House to tell him so.
Lincoln often used stories as a sort of insect repellant against the army ant horde of know-it-alls who came to his office with their harebrained schemes. Law partner, William Herndon, observed Lincoln’s methods as,
“. . . Swinging around what he suspected was the vital point, but never nearing it, interlacing his answers with a seemingly endless supply of stories and jokes.”
Visitors would leave his office feeling they had persuaded the president to their way of thinking, but once having walked only a few blocks they realized they had been bamboozled by Lincoln’s tricky verbal manipulations, or as Herndon put it,
“[After] blowing away the froth of Lincoln’s humorous narratives, they would find nothing left.”
4) To soften the blow of having to tell someone “no”
Lincoln received many “favor seekers” to his office. Often they were upset because he had fired a relative who was in line to become a general, or because he backed a program that ran against their interest, or he failed to give a job to a “qualified” candidate. Lincoln politely welcomed them all and immediately waylaid them with a story. These visitors left his company without what they came for but with only with what they were given: a story with a message for them to think about.
One example of how Lincoln used stories to soften a refusal was when Senator John Creswell (a loyal Republican supporter of Lincoln) came to Lincoln to request the release of an old friend who had been captured and imprisoned.
“I know the man has acted like a fool, but he is my friend, and a good fellow; let him out; give him to me, and I will be responsible that he will have nothing further to do with the rebels.”
Lincoln contemplated the request. It reminded him of a group of young people who went on a little country excursion. They crossed a shallow stream in a flatboat, but on their way back they found that the boat had disappeared. So each boy picked up a girl and carried her across, until the only ones remaining were a little short chap and a great “Gothic-built” old maid. Lincoln complained,
“Now Creswell, you are trying to leave me in the same predicament. You fellows are all getting your friends out of this scrape; and you will succeed in carrying off one after another, until nobody but Jeff Davis [President of the Confederate States] and myself will be left, and then I won’t know what to do. How should I feel? How should I look, lugging him over?”
5) To point out flaws in logic
Combined with his rapier wit, Lincoln’s proclivity for logic enabled him to point out the absurdity of an argument with a casual jest.
Supporters of an applicant for the position of Commissioner of the Hawaiian Islands tried to convince Lincoln that their man was both competent for the post but also in dire need it because the climate was good his health.
“Gentlemen, there are eight other applicants for that position, and they are all sicker’n your man.”